In our previous articles, we have painted a picture of the platform-based ecosystem; charted the shifts in brand marketing from a bullhorn to a community approach; and explored platform idiosyncrasies alongside their respective community behaviors.

This article, our fourth in this series, deep dives into what community means in platform marketing. More importantly, it explores how a focus on community changes a brand’s relationship with its current and potential customers. We will jump into marketing strategy and touch on demographic research, but ultimately this article, and the goal of this entire series, is to better understand content creation in the context of platform marketing. Let’s start by looking at what communities actually are.

How communities form

Communities are a result of curiosity, camaraderie, and passion. Trolls and toxicity can abound (and, more often than not, get the lion’s share of headlines around an online community) but a vast majority of people online are there to have fun, hang out, see/meet friends, and find a place to belong. Each platform provides a different set of tools to engender different kinds of communities (Twitch’s tools encourage engagement over a long period of time, whereas TikTok’s encourage bite-sized and binge-able engagement).

But, ultimately, communities form around personalities who themselves are an entertaining embodiment of a more generally defined community (a particular game, a particular TV show, sport, fashion, etc.). Swagg is a Twitch personality within the larger Call of Duty community; Lilly Singh is (and has been for a while) a YouTube personality within the larger comedy community; Tate McRae is a singer whose popularity on TikTok has galvanized a big, bold, music-loving community. Communities form around personalities because for an individual community member, that personality provides a face for their own fandom. They see themselves reflected in them. That personality is a de facto host to an inviting place to hang out, to be entertained, to be immersed in a like-minded world. This is why personalities tend to be very careful about their brand partners. The wrong brand with an inauthentic message will cause their community to shudder.

The strategic shift here is from marketing towards the demographic category to marketing to the person. So, rather than “targeting” your demographic sweet spot within these communities, brands should shift their tactics to exist alongside the people they most want to reach – by becoming genuine members of these communities. In other words, ask yourself: What kind of content do you want to see?

Who is your community?

Let’s step back and look at what has traditionally been the strategic priorities of brand marketing. The demographic question is, “Who are your customers?”. The data analysis question is, “How do your customers behave online?”. Both of those can point you in the right direction, but the platform marketing version of that same question is, “Where do your customers hang out?”. Not physically, but in the digital landscape. And not just the platform, but in which communities on the platform?

Spend some time exploring this. It is a question that might not be answered by the usual analysis metrics, primarily because there is a deep subjectivity in it. Individual people are complex beings, and the communities they form pulse with that individuality. Yes, there are patterns that emerge, and sometimes accurate assumptions can be made about seeing those patterns in demographic data, but you might be surprised by how much of a disparity there could be between the demographic of your target customer and the online communities of which they are a part. The internet has a way of fostering communal blending; the kind of blending that seriously disrupts rigid demographic categorization. And individuals are always in a constant state of flux, changing tastes and behaviors. There is an organic quality to an online community, the kind of quality that can be best understood by being a part of it. So, once you use some quantitative analysis to get to where you want to be, what do you do?

Brand vs. community

In the past, once you’ve zeroed in on your target demographic, you would have pulled the trigger and shot your commercial right at them. But this is a community that resists commercials. Commercials are the impediment. They disrupt the vibe. Of course, the community can be forgiving when influencers themselves star in commercials, but even then, the commercial itself is still an impediment. The understanding comes from community members knowing that their favorite influencer is getting paid by the brand. It’s more about the community seeing a brand support the influencer than anyone actually taking in the marketing message of the commercial.

Brands can also sponsor events, as is often the case in eSports (and, for that matter, any kind of broadcast sport). The brand doesn’t necessarily impact the content but rather is hoping that by putting their logo in among the other sponsors, either (A) the onslaught of their logo will drive people to pay for their product, or (B) the fans of the event are going to pay for their product as a reward for supporting the content they love.

Most brands operating in the platform marketing space currently do both of the above, and – at least for the time being – it might be wise to continue. We are in a big transition period in the growth of platform marketing and sticking with the things that have worked in the past are still viable ways to get that ROI out of your advertising dollars. However, what does the future look like? What happens when there is a permeable membrane between brands and the communities they want to reach? What if brands could become a persistent presence in these communities – contributing to the dialogue of a community, supporting content that binds a community together, and providing content that resonates deeply with a community? What does that kind of engagement look like? And, perhaps more important, what are the hurdles to making it happen?

Building a persistent presence in a community

Having a persistent presence within communities means that your brand’s mission just got way more complicated, but it also means that the mission itself can be so much more rewarding – for your bottom line and the greater good. But where to start?

Step one: listen.
Platforms are a noisy place. It is a kind of organized chaos, but people on platforms are vocal about what they like and dislike; what they want and don’t want; what they feel is missing in the community; and what they are just sick of. This sounds like we’re coaching a new teacher in a misunderstood classroom, but that might be what is happening. No one is listening to the students. Or, let us posit differently: No one is listening. Period. Brands are tossing money at top influencers, events, and trends; playing whack-a-mole with the right output that is going to strike rich with a mass audience. But what about the people within these communities? You might get one big marketing score, but what about the persistent, shifting organism that is driving all of that? Wouldn’t it be better to use these tools we have to make a more lasting impact?

Step two: respond.
Did you think we were going to say something like “plan” or “analyze”? No, just respond. Every platform has a chat feed – start using it. Start being part of a community before you even have an idea in mind. Drop into many communities that overlap with the people you want to reach, and react to the conversation that is happening.

Step three: develop.
Working internally, and/or with a specialized creative content studio (such as ourselves), articulate the kind of content that your communities talk about wanting – or seem to want – based on immersion.

Step four: greenlight.
Start making content happen. It needn’t be expensive, flashy, or technically complicated. It just needs to be consistent: Content that allows your brand to have a persistent presence among the community. The potential nature of this content will be discussed in a future article in this series, but considering that communities are ever-shifting, and ever-evolving, there will be an excitement in being in a perpetual state of invention, reacting to the ongoing conversation.

Remember, though, communities make for savvy audiences. They know that if a brand is among them, that brand is essentially trying to sell to them. And, for the most part, they are okay with that, as long as you are providing content that they want, engaging in activities that they like, and are overall being a supportive member of the community. And though the practice of this can be more complicated, it is also liberating. You don’t have to be so protective of your brand. Brand, in this context, has a substantial personality, can be multifaceted, and – as we have mentioned – can actually be a member of the community that genuinely cares about that community. The savviness of your audience, then, is an asset. You can level with them.

Who in your organization should take the lead?

Marketing budgets tend to be set months, or even a year in advance, and executed with pile-driving precision into the block mass of the population. What shifting to a focus on the community can mean is that the marketing message itself could shift and change from day to day and week to week, reactive to the audiences that are out there. Therefore, empowering your team to make quick, authoritative decisions about content creation is essential to making platform marketing successful.

So, who should be in charge? Well, everyone. You can still have a top-down reporting structure, but allow individual members of your team to own their content. Don’t force every decision up the ladder. Allow content diversity to take root, one that still answers to the communities you want to reach but which is also highly reactive to how those communities think and act. Your team can have thematic discussions, stylistic discussions, and even strategic and tactical discussions, but trust your team to work as individuals who are part of the very communities they seek to serve.

What’s next?

We have covered a lot over the course of four articles, but it gets even more exciting from here. Now that we have identified what platform marketing is and how it manifests across the many major platforms out there, and how community drives the content that you want to be able to create on those platforms, the next horizon is understanding how the economy works within these platforms. Where there is a community, an economy will emerge.

Some aspects of the economy are built straight into the platform (Twitch empowers its audience to support its favorite streamers in many ways; YouTube has a monetization engine; etc.) but much of the economy is defined by how the community constructs value around the content that emerges within it. There is value inherent in elevating members of the community; there is value inherent in bringing celebrities into the community; there is value inherent in gamifying experience. But let’s talk about that next time. Until then, your homework is to jump into a platform channel…and just listen.

 Cover image source: Brett Jordan